The Yoke’s On Us Parshat Vayechi

112114_jewishview-Rabbi-WeinrebWe all have received blessings at one time or another. We have certainly received compliments. Over the course of time, we learn that sometimes the compliments are clearly flattering. But occasionally, ambiguous statements are made to us, leaving us confused and unable to determine with certainty whether we are being complimented or insulted.

There are statements that leave us with no such doubts. Suppose someone called you a “donkey.” Would you think he was flattering you? What if, as if to remove any shadow of doubt, he went further and asserted that you are a “thick-boned donkey?” I wager that you would come out fighting.

In this week’s Torah portion, our forefather Jacob calls one of his sons, Issachar, just that — a “thick-boned donkey.” Surprisingly, not only does Issachar not take umbrage at his father’s description, but he remains quite convinced that his father is not just complimenting him but is blessing him.

Our Sages take things even further. For them, Jacob’s calling his son a donkey is his way of expressing a prophetic prediction: Issachar’s descendants will have a prestigious role in Jewish history. They will become our people’s supreme Torah authorities.

Why would a loving father, foretelling a glorious future for his son Issachar, choose such a bizarre metaphor to describe him? Admittedly, Jacob compares some of his other sons to a variety of animals. But those sons were no doubt quite pleased to be designated “majestic lions” (Judah), or “lovely fawns” (Naphtali).

Even Dan and Benjamin could, albeit perhaps grudgingly, come to terms with being likened to “a serpent by the road” or “a ravenous wolf.” But “a large boned donkey?” Issachar could not be blamed for finding that overly offensive.

Our commentators insist that Issachar found Jacob’s choice of the term “donkey” inoffensive. Indeed, they consider it an apt metaphor for Issachar’s special qualities. To understand this, we must study the full text of words of the blessing that Jacob granted to Issachar: “Issachar is a thick-boned donkey, crouching down between the sheepfolds. For he saw a resting place that was good, and the land that it was pleasant; he bent his shoulder to the burden, and became a toiling serf.” (Gen. 49:14-15)

Jacob knew all of his sons quite well. He discerned their unique strengths and did not suppress his criticisms of their weaknesses. He insightfully recognized Issachar’s special qualities: While Issachar intuitively realized he didn’t have the leadership talents of Judah or the reckless courage of Simon and Levi, he was an idealist who set strong goals for himself, even in his early youth and he understood that in order to achieve those goals, he would have to persevere tenaciously over the course of long years; he was willing, even eager, to do so. He accepted the yoke of hard work and the burden of sustained effort.

Knowing Issachar well, Jacob chose to compare his characteristics to those of the donkey. With this comparison, he was both blessing Issachar with success, and he was complimenting him for his willingness to bear any burden and to even toil as a lowly serf in order to attain his lofty goals: a “resting place” and a “pleasant land.”

Just as Jacob chose the metaphor “donkey” to best capture Issachar’s diligence, so did he select the term menucha (resting place) to symbolize Torah and the world of rest that it engenders. And so did he use the phrase “pleasant land” to refer to the land that Jacob so cherished, the Land of Israel.

Intellectual mastery of Torah and remaining loyal to its ideals is a formidable challenge. Such mastery and such loyalty demand kabbalat ol malchut shamayim vekabbalat ol mitzvoth, an acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and an “acceptance of the yoke of the mitzvot.” For Jacob, Issachar’s stubborn willingness to submit to those yokes was best captured by the image of the “thick-boned donkey.”

Steadfast commitment is not only a prerequisite for a life of religious menucha, of Torah. It is also required in order to possess the Holy Land, cultivate it, and protect it. Both Torah and the Land require that same stubborn commitment. The donkey willing to submit to its burden is also the perfect symbol for a people committed to building and defending Eretz Yisrael.

The Targum (or Aramaic) translation of the Bible, written by the ancient sage Onkelos, treats the last phrases of the verses quoted above in a dramatic and almost shocking manner. The words “he bent his shoulders to the burden and became a toiling serf” are rendered by Onkelos as follows: “He will vanquish the lands of the nations, defeat their inhabitants, and those that survive will serve him and pay him tribute.”

Thus, the “thick-boned donkey” conjures up diverse images for our Sages.

The best known view sees Issachar bent under the burden of Torah study until he finally becomes the model Talmudic sage. The Midrash sees the donkey as akin to the early Zionist chalutz (pioneer), who persists in his mission of settling the arid desert, causing it to flower, and protecting it from marauders. For Onkelos, the donkey is the symbol of the Jewish soldier, stubbornly holding on to every inch of the hotly contested battlefield.

Among my favorite twentieth century rabbinic writers was a man named Elimelech Bar-Shaul, a former rabbi of Rehovot, who passed away exactly 50 years ago. In a collection of his sermons entitled “Min HaBe’er,” he agrees that the stubbornness of the “thick-boned donkey” is needed for achieving both Torah prowess and sovereignty over the Land of Israel. But he goes further and writes:

“Just as Torah study must be refreshed and renewed constantly, so does our appreciation of the Land of Israel require renewal. Torah cannot be taken for granted; neither can the Holy Land. We must continuously deepen our love for the Land of Israel, just as our Torah study must always strive for greater depth. Each morning, we must be newly impressed by Torah, and with every dawn, we must appreciate our land anew.”

Rabbi Bar-Shaul coined a phrase that has remained with me ever since I first encountered it soon after his premature demise: He wrote, “The Rabbis speak of the ol Torah, the yoke of Torah. There is also an ol Eretz Yisrael, the yoke of the Land of Israel.”

Issachar is the archetype of the one who bears both the burden of Torah and the burden of the Land of Israel. He submits to both yokes. It might be difficult for the rest of us to feel comfortable with the title “thick-boned donkey.”

But we must at least understand that this title is a symbol of our stubborn submission to the twin yokes of Torah and Israel.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.


> In “Honoring Those Who Came Before Us” (Dec. 18), Mikro Kodesh Beth Israel Cemetery is owned by Mikro Kodesh Beth Israel Cemetery Incorporated. The JT regrets the error.

Syrians to Mexico, Then to U.S. Citizenship

Regarding the Dec. 4 Your Say letter, “Heed These Words of Freedom,” I would like to offer some comments to letter-writers Delegates Sandy Rosenberg and Shelly Hettleman. You are both right. “The fight is not against Muslims or Islam.” The fight is against America by fanatical Muslims who have interpreted parts of their religion, giving them a rationale for killing all infidels (non-Muslims). Thus, we have ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc.

The government does not have the ability to vet 10,000 Syrians as proven by the Boston bombing and the San Bernardino shootings. Several U.S. security agencies, including Jim Colby, head of the FBI, have stated that they cannot assure complete vetting of the refugees.

The vetting problem can be solved, however, by sending the Syrians to Mexico, where they can enter the U.S. as typical illegal aliens, thus assuring their eventual citizenship.

Poll Question Screams Bias

Your political bias was astoundingly crystal in the manner in which you asked the question in the Dec. 18 Poll of the Week: “Do you believe Donald Trump’ s comments about Muslims traveling to and living in the United States disqualify him as a credible contender for the White House?” What presidential hopeful Trump called for was a “temporary cessation” of non-U.S. citizen Muslim visitors and immigrants until the vetting process can be clarified. Muslim U.S. citizens were not referenced or
inferred in any way.

The manner in which you asked the question is like asking, “When did you stop beating your wife?”  Why not ask, “In your opinion, is a temporary cessation of Muslim immigration and tourism from certain specific nations warranted until the vetting process can be resolved?” and not invoke Donald Trump? That is the appropriate question — not one that specifically undermines a presidential candidate of whom you disapprove. The vast majority of Americans agree that a temporary cessation would be wise at this time.  Do U.S. Jews agree with the rest of the nation?

As one of a growing number of Conservative Jews in Maryland, I am continually amazed by your glaring political bias. It would be amusing if the stakes were not so high, and sociopolitical repercussions were not so critical.

Please try to ask your questions more fairly.

Time to Reflect on Country’s Good

JT editor-in-chief Joshua Runyan’s Dec. 18 Opening Thoughts (“Reverse the Neglect”) brought tears to my eyes. It made me step back and remove myself from the mire and vitriol of the politics we are observing in our blessed country. It gave me pause to remove myself from the fear that outside forces have thrust upon us.

We need to take a deep breath and realize that although I worry about the future for my grandchildren, what we have in this country cannot ever be diminished in its value. Runyan so beautifully expressed this in his analysis of the White House. Indeed, it is not a palace but a house. “Its grandeur emanates from its history.”

Thank you for giving me the chance to remember just what my country means to me.

Boxer, Not Schayes: Are You Serious?

Why was there no coverage in last week’s JT of the death of Dolph Schayes, the greatest Jewish basketball player ever? Meanwhile, The Seen devoted extensive space to an athlete on a comeback trail in a dying sport, boxing? Why?

To be sure, Schayes has no local ties (although the cantor of Chizuk Amuno Congregation does have a photo of himself with Schayes); but then, that is also true of the boxer. So, why is the latter of interest? Perhaps because he is affiliated with Chabad, as is the editor-in-chief of this periodical?

As to the boxer’s comment (he’ s also a rabbi no less!) that “boxing is a very spiritual sport”: ridiculous. There is nothing spiritual about getting into a ring intending to beat an opponent’s brains out for recreational pleasure, if not profit. Nothing could be more anti-spiritual and un-rabbinic.

At Hillel, Fostering a Culture of Disabilities Inclusion

Standing before the burning bush, Moses asks of God, “Mi anochi?” “Who am I to be the one who goes to Pharaoh?” Though there are many reasons why Moses may have asked the question, a tip-off to what is really on Moses’ mind comes just a few verses later when Moses reminds God that he is “slow of speech and tongue.”

In most commentaries, this is interpreted to mean that Moses has a severe speech impediment. God’s
response to Moses’ disability is powerful. God wants him for his leadership qualities notwithstanding his disability, and Moses draws strength from having his brother, Aaron, stand beside him and support him.

Noah Weiss is a 2015 graduate from a doctoral program at my alma mater, Northwestern University. Noah writes in the new issue of Hillel College Guide magazine that his Asperger’s syndrome had often stood in the way of building strong connections with his peers, but the community he found at Hillel helped change that.

“Hillel events helped me to break out of my Aspie shell,” he writes. “I could feel a sense of community that didn’t discriminate against others because of their background or human conditions.”

That’s why Hillel International is launching a multiyear campaign, through a generous partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, to build cultures of inclusion on college campuses. We can all be Aarons who make it possible for students with disabilities, including mental illness, to find their voice. We can work together with all students to break down barriers to participation in the Jewish community and on the broader campus. And we can be among the ones who students turn to as a resource when they are grappling with mental illness, depression, anxiety and trauma. We can create welcoming spaces, and we can make it clear that they too are Jewish leaders.

With Hillel staff from around the world gathering this week in Orlando, Fla., for the second annual Hillel International Global Assembly, inclusion of students with disabilities and mental illnesses will be top among our major focuses. Research shows that the college years are the time when many mental illnesses first manifest, the result of both biological and environmental changes and stresses.

This year, we are undertaking a series of trainings to equip Hillel staff with the skills to recognize and lower barriers to inclusion and be a partner for students struggling with mental illness. In addition to skills training, the Hillel International Global Assembly will feature a session on inclusion of students with disabilities and mental health awareness, featuring several recent graduates sharing their stories about mental illness on campus. These stories include themes of depression, anxiety, suicide and
eating disorders.

Moses was certainly not alone among our forebears having a disability that could make it difficult for him to connect with and lead the Jewish community. Today, there are still plenty of people like Moses, plenty of young Jews with disabilities waiting to take leadership. We all must be Aarons and commit ourselves to helping them do just that.

Kaddish and My Dad: a Celebration of Life

When I embarked upon the sad journey facing a new life after losing my Dad, Neil Israel, one year ago, I was nervous about the necessity to recite the mourner’s Kaddish multiple times every day as an avel (mourner). However, I found that its rote repetition never became a burden; but rather a bracha (blessing). The ancient Kaddish prayer is an affirmation of G-d’s presence in this world and a call to G-d to bestow peace upon us.  Personally, Kaddish became a yearning for a structured connection to spiritually talk to Dad, as I had almost every day of his living life.

Although I felt early on, and certainly feel now, that Dad’s neshomah (soul) is in a better place, closer with G-d, I still had to face that he was now distanced from me.  But each time I said Kaddish, I was
enveloped in warm memories of Dad’s encouraging, loving support, as it conjured my childhood memories of sitting next to Dad in shul (synagogue), where he was a lifetime regular

Fortunately, I never had to bear the responsibility of remembering Dad alone, as my journey was shared with my mother, brother and sister; I was lovingly supported by my life partner, Suzy, and tolerated by my six children. I also remembered Dad with my fellow mourners. I came to better appreciate the phrase, “Bitoch shaar evlay tzion v’yerushalayim” (amid the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem) that we commonly recite to an avel in a shiva house. Each new avel was
welcomed in to our Kaddish Zugger’s (reciter’s) club, and together, we set the tempo and emotional pace of Kaddish recitation, lifted each other’s spirits and recalled our loved ones.

But alas, after the year-long journey that provided me so much comfort from and within Jewish Tradition ended on Dad’s first yartzeit (the anniversary of his death), Jewish law demanded of me that I abruptly cease my ritualistic mourning. All I felt was an empty chasm and faced a void of emptiness. Although I was no longer inconsolable in the emotional sense, my entire being and neshomah cried out to keep going, to retain a strong connection to my Dad through the medium of prayer kavannah (focused intent).

Over the past few weeks, I shifted from simply reciting words to internalizing their message. I comprehended that Kaddish is much more than a spiritual slogan, but rather it’s a call to action. Not just believing in Kaddish’s power of Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying G-d’s name) as I confidently feel my Dad did on a daily basis through his honesty; not just reciting about Kiddush Hashem as so many of my dad’s friends and relatives shared with me about him. But by
living for Kiddush Hashem.

While my tears of grief have slowly dried up and been replaced by loving memories of my Dad that inspire me to celebrate and live a fuller life, I can no longer simply remember Dad during tefillah (prayer), but must emulate his life in everything I do. I need to transfer my mourner’s journey of words from my lips to my hands and from my tongue to my feet: to incorporate Dad’s life lessons into action for all upcoming voyages that lie ahead.

Is a Jewish Dentist a Security Threat?

The crime of practicing dentistry while Jewish would be funny if it wasn’t true. But by all appearances, that’s exactly what led a retired dentist, Dr. Gershon Pincus, to be denied a needed security clearance to continue treating patients at an off-base naval clinic in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. We would normally question such accounts as being rooted in the kind of much-ballyhooed conspiracy theories that appear in our spam filters or email inboxes every day. But in this case, at least some of the facts have been confirmed.

This much we know: Pincus, a New York City resident, found a federal job working part time at the clinic in 2014. Later that year, he underwent a routine interview to obtain a security clearance for civilian employees. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, “As part of the interview, [Pincus] made note of his familial connections in Israel.” Those connections include two siblings, his mother and a son, who had served in the Israel Defense Forces and died from a drug overdose. Pincus himself also visited Israel three times in the last decade but made clear that he is not interested in moving there. In September, Pincus was denied a security clearance and was forced to quit his job.

In explaining its decision, the Office of Personnel Management told Pincus, “Foreign contacts and interests may be a security concern due to divided loyalties or foreign financial interests, may be manipulated or induced to help a foreign person, group, organization or government in a way that is not in U.S. interests or is vulnerable to pressure or coercion by foreign interests.”

It is offensive and unfair that OPM has raised the question of Pincus’ dual loyalties merely because he has family in Israel. How many Jews would be deemed poor security risks on that basis? Is it now necessary for Jews seeking security clearances who have relatives there to renounce Israel? And must those Jews also refrain from traveling to the Jewish state or risk being denied security clearances? Indeed, are all Jews inherently suspect when it comes to Israel?

Pincus has appealed the OPM decision to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. The OPM isn’t talking about the case. But just from the contours of the whole affair, we must cry foul. Pincus was filling cavities and doing other dental work in Upstate New York; he wasn’t working on the Manhattan Project.

What is it about Pincus’ ties to Israel that have disqualified him? The government better have a very good answer. And, unless he is somehow complicit in illegal activity, Pincus should be reinstated immediately with back pay and an effusive apology.

In these hypersensitive times, OPM can ill afford to make a stupid mistake.

Justice, Not Vengeance, for Freddie Gray

A protester carries a sign outside the City Circuit Court House during jury deliberations in the trial  of William G. Porter.

A protester carries a sign outside the City Circuit Court House during jury deliberations in the trial of William G. Porter.

The mistrial of Baltimore Police Officer William G. Porter, who was on trial for the death of Freddie Gray, likely satisfied no one. Most disappointed appear to be those who wanted to see Porter convicted of the charges against him: involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

The fact that there was no rioting following the announcement — as there was after Gray’s funeral in April — is a testament to the commitment of the residents of Baltimore to see the Gray case through the justice system. Five more police officers remain to be tried in Gray’s death, and the prosecution has scheduled a retrial for Porter.

The day before the mistrial was announced, civic leaders called for a peaceful response to whatever was to come. “We, who struggle for greater justice in our society, must be prepared to do justice as well,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-District 7). “We must be just whether we agree or disagree with a jury’s verdict in a single criminal trial.”

In calling for justice, Cummings and others were also encouraging all members of the Baltimore community to respect the system, even if they feel that the system has long been stacked against them. A similar sentiment was expressed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake after the mistrial was announced, when she declared: “All of us, if we believe in justice, must have respect for the outcome of the judicial process.”

Yet, in some of the protests following the announcement of the hung jury, there were some who asserted that anything less than a full conviction on all counts was a miscarriage of justice. And there were others who were even more provocative and who sought to equate justice with vengeance. We disagree, and we believe that most Baltimoreans disagree. Our system of morality and justice continues to believe that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. That is so no matter how deep the sense of wrong actually is or how forcefully a community believes that crimes have been committed.

Thankfully, the calls for justice drowned out the calls for vengeance, and our community is fortunate that the protests were peaceful. There is still a long way to go to secure justice for Freddie Gray, but one thing has become very clear: The complex and deeply divisive problems facing Baltimore will not be solved by sending six police officers to prison. Rather, resolution of the problems will depend on a comprehensive overhaul of the entire system, starting with a mismanaged police department.